SMRT bus drivers’ strike



On 26 November 2012, 171 bus drivers from public-transport service provider SMRT Corporation Limited (SMRT) refused to go to work, and 88 were absent from work the next day.1 It was the first strike in Singapore since the Hydril strike in 1986. The protestors, who were all Chinese nationals, were aggrieved at the disparity between their wages and those of their Malaysian counterparts. They were also disgruntled at the poor living conditions and how their complaints had been ignored.2 The two-day strike was deemed illegal under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, as the workers had disrupted an essential service without the requisite two weeks’ notice.3 There were delays in some 10 percent of SMRT’s bus services on the first day of the strike, and five percent on the following day.4

Background
Prior to the 1990s, bus drivers in Singapore mainly comprised Singaporeans and permanent residents. Bus operators began employing Malaysians during the 1990s as more Singaporeans attained higher education levels and thus moved towards white-collar jobs. To meet rising passenger numbers and higher service standards, the operators started recruiting from China in 2008 when demand for bus drivers could no longer be fully met by Singaporeans and Malaysians.5

In 2012, SMRT employed some 2,000 bus drivers, about 450 of whom were Chinese nationals.6 The drivers from China were hired under two-year contracts. Housed in dormitories, their accommodation was paid for by SMRT. The Malaysian drivers, on the other hand, were hired on a permanent basis and their terms of employment did not encompass lodging.7

In July 2012, SMRT extended the bus drivers’ mandatory work days from five to six days per week.8 While the drivers still had to meet the minimum 44 hours of work weekly, the move was perceived as a loss in welfare for drivers who preferred an extra day off each week. Those who preferred to earn overtime income were also affected, as the number of days they could do so was reduced from two to one per week.9 In the same month, SMRT raised the basic pay of Chinese nationals by S$75, Malaysians by S$150 and Singaporeans by S$425. Then in October 2012, Singaporean and Malaysian drivers’ basic salary was further increased by S$150 and S$50 respectively, but no pay adjustment was made for the drivers from China.10

The strike
Reasons for the strike
The strike was staged by SMRT bus drivers from China who were unhappy with their monthly basic pay of S$1,075, compared with their Malaysian counterparts’ S$1,400, when the job responsibilities were essentially the same.11 The Chinese nationals were also disgruntled at the living conditions in their dormitories. With 10 to 12 workers in a room, overcrowding was flagged as a problem. In addition, because drivers from different shifts were housed together, rest time for some was disturbed by the movements of others. Some of the beds were also infested with bedbugs.12 According to the strikers, they had previously raised their grievances with their superiors, but resolution to their problems was not forthcoming and employers were said to have been insensitive to their complaints.13

First day of strike
A total of 171 SMRT bus drivers took part in the strike on 26 November 2012.14 The protest began before dawn, when drivers at the dormitory in Woodlands refused to start their morning shift. By mid-morning, more drivers had travelled from another dormitory in Serangoon to participate in the sit-in. Later, workers on the afternoon shift also joined in the strike. The police arrived at the Woodlands dormitory at around 10 am. Although riot trucks and some 45 police officers were deployed, no direct police intervention was required.15

Facilitated by officers from the Ministry of Manpower, talks between SMRT management and bus drivers commenced in the afternoon.16 During the mediation session, SMRT proposed a S$25 increment, but the offer was turned down as the drivers sought greater parity with their Malaysian counterparts.17 The talks ended at about 6 pm with SMRT agreeing to get back to the bus drivers on their wage concerns in a week’s time.18 The transport operator also issued a statement that night pronouncing that all bus drivers had agreed to return to work the following day.19

Second day of strike
On 27 November 2012, however, 88 drivers extended the strike into its second day. Some of the strikers indicated that they refused to return to work because they deemed that SMRT’s offer of a S$25 increment to their monthly salary was still too low. Later in the morning, some strikers decided to return to work after hearing that they would be dismissed if they continued to be absent from their job duties. While police officers were also deployed on the second day of the strike, the numbers were smaller than the day before.20

On the same day, the government announced that it deemed the actions of the Chinese nationals as an illegal strike and that police investigations were underway. Under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, it is illegal for workers in essential services to go on strike unless they give employers 14 days’ notice of their intent to go on strike. Public-transport services, including those provided by SMRT, are among the list of essential services covered under the legislation.21

End of strike
The two-day strike came to an end on 28 November 2012, when all bus drivers who went on strike (except six who had valid reasons) returned to work.22

Action against the strikers
On 28 November 2012, 20 SMRT bus drivers who had gone on strike on both days were called in by the police to assist in investigations.23 Five drivers were arrested and subsequently charged in court for instigating the illegal strike.24 The five drivers were sentenced to jail terms between six and seven weeks for their respective charges.25

Another 29 drivers were identified as active participants of the strike.26 This group received stern warnings from the police and their work permits were revoked, following which they were repatriated to China on 2 December 2012.27

The police also issued warnings to some 150 strikers who had returned to work after realising that the strike was illegal. This group was said to be more passive and had shown remorse over their actions. It is also believed that some of them had been pressured into participating in the strike. No further action was taken against this group of drivers and they were allowed to continue working in Singapore.28

Follow-up actions by SMRT
On 28 November 2012, SMRT acknowledged that more could have been done in terms of addressing its bus drivers’ complaints on living conditions, as well as communicating the rationale for the wage disparity between its Chinese and Malaysian drivers. The transport operator, however, maintained that its Chinese and Malaysian workers’ salaries were equitable, as the wage difference was attributed to the cost of the Chinese nationals’ accommodation and utilities.29

On 3 December 2012, the Chinese drivers were informed by SMRT management that the company would limit their wage increase to the S$25 offered in the previous week. The reason for the difference in pay between Chinese and Malaysian drivers was also explained.30 The S$25 increment was described by the management as a goodwill gesture, as the Chinese drivers were not entitled to any wage increase under their two-year contracts.31

SMRT implemented a series of follow-up actions after the incident, including fumigation of dormitory rooms with bedbug complaints, repair of room fixtures and setting up town hall sessions with its bus drivers to address their concerns.32 A 24-hour hotline and an email helpdesk were also set up, and a team of liaison officers formed, so as to enable drivers from China to seek help or provide feedback on work and living conditions.33

In addition, SMRT conducted an internal investigation after the illegal strike, and its Chief Executive Officer Desmond Kuek admitted in December 2012 that the strike could have been avoided if the bus drivers’ supervisors had been more sensitive and responsive to the drivers’ complaints.34 Completed in early 2013, the investigation led to disciplinary action – including issuance of warning letters and dismissal – against those who had failed to exercise their management or supervisory responsibilities properly.35

Role of the union
As the SMRT bus drivers who went on strike were not union members, the National Transport Workers’ Union did not have the legal mandate to represent the workers.36

Before the strike, less than five percent of SMRT’s Chinese drivers were unionised, but a majority of these drivers had joined the labour union by February 2013.37



Author
Cheryl Sim



References
1. How the illegal strike unfolded. (2012, December 2). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; SMRT Corporation Ltd. (2015). Our business. Retrieved from SMRT website: http://www.smrt.com.sg/Corporate/Our-Business
2. Toh, Y. C. (2012, November 28). End of 26-year strike-free spell in Singapore. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Tan, C. (2012, December 1). SMRT has deep-seated issues: CEO. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Tan, A. (2013, January 2). Bus driver repatriated after jail term. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
3. How the illegal strike unfolded. (2012, December 2). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Toh, Y. C. (2012, November 28). End of 26-year strike-free spell in Singapore. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
4. Tan, C. (2012, November 28). Govt moves against ‘illegal strike’. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Sim, R., & Chia, Y. M. (2012, November 29). All SMRT bus services running as scheduled. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
5. Tan, C. (2012, November 28). Vital to raise appeal of bus-driving as a career. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
6. Tan, C. (2012, November 27). 102 SMRT bus drivers protest against pay. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
7. Almenoar, M. (2012, November 29). Police call in 20 SMRT bus drivers. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Almenoar, M. (2012, November 29). Unhappiness may be over SBS comparisons. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
8. Sim, R. (2012, November 28). Trouble began after drivers got payslips. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
9. Tan, C. (2012, November 28). Vital to raise appeal of bus-driving as a career. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
10. Almenoar, M. (2012, November 29). Police call in 20 SMRT bus drivers. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Sim, R. (2012, November 28). Trouble began after drivers got payslips. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
11. Tan, S. (2012, December 2). 29 drivers to be sent back to China. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Sim, R., & Toh, K. (2012, November 27). Key grouse said to be over unequal salaries. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
12. Almenoar, M. (2012, November 29). Unhappiness may be over SBS comparisons. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
13. Tan, C. (2012, November 28). Govt moves against ‘illegal strike’. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Tan, S. (2012, December 2). 29 drivers to be sent back to China. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
14. Ministry of Manpower. (2012, November 26). MOM’s response to media queries on the SMRT situation [Press release]. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower website: http://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/Pages/PressReleasesDetail.aspx?listid=464; Tan, C. (2012, November 28). Govt moves against ‘illegal strike’. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
15. Tan, C. (2012, November 27). 102 SMRT bus drivers protest against pay. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Almenoar, M. (2012, November 29). Unhappiness may be over SBS comparisons. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
16. Ministry of Manpower. (2012, November 26). MOM’s response to media queries on the SMRT situation [Press release]. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower website: http://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/Pages/PressReleasesDetail.aspx?listid=464
17. Sim, R. (2012, November 28). Trouble began after drivers got payslips. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
18. Tan, S. (2012, December 2). 29 drivers to be sent back to China. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
19. Sim, R., & Toh, K. (2012, November 27). Key grouse said to be over unequal salaries. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; SMRT Corporation Ltd. (2012, November 27). SMRT statement on service leaders who were absent from work [Press release]. Retrieved from SMRT website: http://www.smrt.com.sg/Portals/0/PDFs/Press%20Release/2012/Media%20Release%2028%20Nov.pdf
20. Almenoar, M. (2012, November 28). Strike rumbles on as drivers stay away. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
21. Ministry of Manpower. (2012, November 27). Remarks by Acting Minister for Manpower Mr Tan Chuan-Jin on the illegal strike by SMRT bus drivers [Press release]. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower website: http://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/Pages/PressReleasesDetail.aspx?listid=465; How the illegal strike unfolded. (2012, December 2). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
22. Almenoar, M. (2012, November 29). Police call in 20 SMRT bus drivers. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Sim, R., & Chia, Y. M. (2012, November 29). All SMRT bus services running as scheduled. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
23. Sim, R., & Chia, Y. M. (2012, November 29). All SMRT bus services running as scheduled. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
24. Ministry of Manpower. (2012, November 29). MOM’s statement in response to media queries on the SMRT bus drivers [Press release]. Retrieved from Ministry of Manpower website: http://www.mom.gov.sg/newsroom/Pages/PressReleasesDetail.aspx?listid=466; Almenoar, M., & Sim, R. (2012, November 30). Four SMRT bus drivers charged over strike. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Ng, K. L. (2012, December 3). 29 drivers in illegal strike repatriated to China. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
25. Almenoar, M. (2012, December 4). SMRT bus driver jailed six weeks over strike. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Chow, J. (2013, February 26). Illegal SMRT strike; 4 bus drivers jailed for instigation. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
26. Sim, R. (2012, December 2). Drivers to get ex gratia pay before leaving. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
27. Ministry of Home Affairs, & Ministry of Manpower. (2012, December 1). Government acts against instigators and key participants in illegal bus driver strike [Press release]. Retrieved from Ministry of Home Affairs website: http://www.mha.gov.sg/news_details.aspx?nid=Mjc0NA%3D%3D-s9gevdChCeY%3D; Ng, K. L. (2012, December 3). 29 drivers in illegal strike repatriated to China. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
28. Tan, S. (2012, December 2). 29 drivers to be sent back to China. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Sim, R. (2012, December 2). Drivers to get ex gratia pay before leaving. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; How the illegal strike unfolded. (2012, December 2). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
29. Almenoar, M. (2012, November 29). Police call in 20 SMRT bus drivers. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
30. Sim, R. (2012, December 4). Pay rise for Chinese drivers stays at $25. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
31. Tan, C. (2012, December 1). Strike broke before notice of pay rise. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
32. Chow, J., Lim, J., & Sim, R. (2012, November 30). Colleagues surprised at charges. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Sim, R., & Almenoar, M. (2012, November 30). Tackle workers’ concerns fast: MOM. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
33. Safety not an issue for buses driven by the Chinese, says chief. (2012, December 1). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; Sim, R., & Almenoar, M. (2012, November 30). Tackle workers’ concerns fast: MOM. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
34. Gabriel, A. (2012, December 14).  SMRT supervisors may face action: CEO. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva; SMRT Corporation Ltd. (2015). Senior management introduction. Retrieved from SMRT website: http://www.smrt.com.sg/Corporate/Group-Senior-Management/Senior-Management-Introduction
35. Chow, J., & Sim, R. (2013, February 15). SMRT boss shakes up bus ops management. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.
36. National Transport Workers’ Union. (2012, November 26). National Transport Workers’ Union responds to SMRT PRC bus drivers’ dispute [Press release]. Retrieved from National Trades Union Congress website: http://www.ntuc.org.sg/wps/portal/up2/home/aboutntuc/newsroom/mediareleases/mediareleasesdetails?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/content_library/ntuc/home/about+ntuc/newsroom/media+releases/4a089d804d9a3b988f38afc7b9d67807
37. Chow, J. (2013, February 5). Three-quarters of SMRT’s PRC drivers now union members: Lim Swee Say. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.




The information in this article is valid as at 11 March 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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